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  • Alison Merrill

Malaysia & Thailand – Island Hopping & Reclaiming Southeast Asia

Updated: Nov 3, 2019



The Same Country, 3 Years Later, Two Different Experiences


Seven years ago, I was captivated by the idea of traveling to Thailand and Bali because when I fantasized about my own personal paradise, I pictured diverse culture, beautiful beaches, and blue ocean. I even had a picture of a wooden boat, palm trees, and blue water, (somewhere in Thailand) sitting on my vision board for years. Once Sam and I went to Bali and Thailand in 2016, I took the picture down because we had achieved the goal of going despite getting the feelings of simplistic living and adventure I was craving.


When Sam and I were sitting in Koh Lipe, Thailand last week, toes in the sand, looking out at the ocean and admiring the beautiful boats, he said, “this looks exactly like the picture that was on your vision board a couple of years ago.” For all I know, it could have been the exact same place.


Our view from the beach and a similar picture to what was on my vision board seven years ago.

Thailand and Bali – Our First International Trip and Worst Vacation


December 20th- January 3rd, 2016


Sam and my trip to Thailand and Bali in 2016 was a complete disaster. We fell victim to numerous travel scams (one was having to bribe airport security to let us into the country), missed the only ferry from Bali to the Gili Islands (leaving us with no place to sleep), had constant rain (should have avoided rainy season), and ended the trip with a dramatic case of Bali Belly. When people asked us the best part of our Thailand and Bali vacation, we talked about the incredible tour we did in Seoul, South Korea which was surprising as Seoul was where we had an eight-hour layover.


What went wrong? After reflecting, we realized the problem lied in Sam and my preparation and expectations. Here’s where we went wrong:


1. Trying to see too much too quickly. We saw seven places in two-weeks which was a two-night average in each place. As most of our time was spent on planes, cabs, or boats.


2. Not planning ahead… enough. While we planned where we would stay, we did not research how we were getting from location to location. This was a problem when we missed the only boat to the islands and were left stranded in the middle of a rainstorm.


3. Going during the rainy season. Before anyone says, “duh” there are benefits to traveling during rainy season: fewer crowds, cheaper lodging, and depending on the country and month, the weather is not that bad. The issue was that I was most excited to lounge on the beach and drink water out of a coconut. I should have either managed my expectations or chosen another place for that time of year.


4. Not preparing for the culture shock – We went straight from working to hopping on a plane and landing in Bangkok. It was both our first time in Asia and we did not do enough research to prepare for cultural differences or allocate enough time to adjust.


5. If something tastes funny, do not eat it – The moral of the story is, do not eat an entire papaya (or anything for that matter) if it does not smell or taste “quite right”. That, or suffer the gastronomical consequences.


Seoul, South Korea (2016) - the best layover there ever was.

Problems aside, we did enjoy many amazing moments on our Bali and Thailand trip; few experiences are ever all bad or all good. One of our favorites, this boat ride from Gili Air back to Bali (2016).

There is Such a Thing as Second Chances


Sam and I are firm believers in taking recommendations from our family, friends, and cool people we meet when it comes to travel (within reason). When Sam and I started planning our “around the world adventure”, nine out of ten people recommended Thailand, Bali, or somewhere in Southeast Asia. To be fair, how could they not? SEA was (and still is) a popular backpacking destination where travelers can indulge in cheap and delicious food, experience interesting culture, soak up the sun on white sandy beaches, ride motorcycles through mountains, fields, and rice patties, or explore any of the thriving and dynamic cities. Sam and I had written off SEA as a part of the world where we had the worst trip of our lives which was semi-illogical as there are many countries in SEA and each culture is different. Regardless of our irrational view, we found it hard to ignore the constant suggestions from others and the voices in our heads saying, “maybe we should give it another try.”


We flew from India to Singapore where we spent 2-3 glorious days... Singapore is Ia dream.

Then, we flew from Singapore to Langkawi, Malaysia.

Langkawi, Malaysia – We Officially Settle In


October 5th – October 13th


Sam’s Mom’s best childhood friend, Lori, lives in Langkawi, Malaysia. Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia and made up of 878 islands. It borders Thailand by land and ocean as well as Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia by ocean. The country's population is made up of Malay, Chinese, and Indian with the official religion being Islam.


Lori and her husband Charlie are from the United States and moved to Langkawi to start their own business. They created the largest zip line in all of Malaysia (Umgawa) where they just received an award on tourism from the Malaysian Prime Minister. Not only do they run a kick-ass business and live in the swankiest apartment with a pool, Lori is an amazing vegan cook who makes everything from scratch – peanut butter, hummus, bread, granola bars, and more. Can this be my life when I "retire"?


Lori and Charlie are business titans in the Malaysian tourism industry and gave Sam and I the best recommendations for activities. Because of them, our time in Langkawi is where we had some of the best days of our entire trip. How can one not enjoy an exotic island paradise combined with a slice of home because of family friends?


Some of our highlights in Langkawi:


1. Ziplining through the jungle: Umgawa is a jungle tour with 12 ziplines. We flew through treetops and beside waterfalls. In addition to getting our adrenaline rush, we learned about Langkawi’s wildlife as Umgawa’s rangers are experts on the unique nature of the island.


2. Jet skiing to numerous islands –Langkawi itself has 99 islands – most inhabitable. We did a four-hour jet ski excursion to deserted islands, caves, and open water.


3. Horseback riding on the beach at sunset – I was eager to fulfill this romantic idea of Sam and I riding stallions down the beach into the sunset. However, when I told the staff about our limited horse-riding experience, they insisted on walking us and the horses the entire way; not as romantic, but still epic.


4. Hiking Gunung Mat Chinchang – We did a five-hour hike with one of Umgawa’s rangers that provided us a gorgeous panoramic view of the islands and ocean. The route was also one of the hardest and most rewarding hikes we have ever done – think climbing straight uphill using giant boulders and ropes for stability in 94-degree heat. Also, it had rained the day before and leeches were rampant. Sam and I suffered a couple of bites but our guide Nina was the real champ – she endured twenty leeches! No harm, no foul though. While at first, we were disgusted by these little monsters, we learned that they could easily be plucked off and only made for a “new experience” according to, Nina.


Ziplining through the jungle at Umgawa.

Chilling on Lori's favorite and secret beach. Photo: Alison

View from the top of Gunung Mat Chinchang. Photo: Sam

View from Lori and Charlie's our final night. Photo: Alison

The one time we were allowed to ride the horses on our own - 15 seconds to take this photo.

Koh Lipe, Thailand – Paradise Away from Paradise


October 13th-October 16th


The first day Sam and I arrived in Langkawi, Lori told us we had to go to Koh Lipe which was an island that is a thirty-minute boat ride. There was just one problem – it was in Thailand and Sam and I were still jaded from our previous trip. However, our strongest principle on the road is trusting local advice. So, despite our hesitations, we gave Thailand another try and headed to Koh Lipe.


Of course, locals are seldom wrong when it comes to travel suggestions and Koh Lipe did not disappoint. In fact, it was what I had dreamed that my previous Thailand and Bali trip could have been. This little island is quaint and stunning. There are no cars and small boats bring visitors to shore where they hop out into the ocean because there is no pier. The water is perfectly clear and a deep greenish-blue so that seeing the fish swim below one’s feet is easy. We stayed in a tiny rickshaw hut, fully equipped with a hammock, surrounded by palm trees, and a two-minute walk to the oceanfront. The hut did not have AC, warm water, or Wi-Fi, but who needs it when they are living their best life?


While Ko Lipe is in Thailand, it's a 30-minute boat ride away from Langkawi, Malaysia.

Our highlights in Koh Lipe:


1. Snorkeling - We did a four-hour snorkeling trip where we got to explore the reefs, water, and fish by boat. The whole experience including lunch and gear was $15.


2. Manicures and Pedicures – Sam and I treated ourselves to a Mani-Pedi that cost $10 in total. What a deal.


3. R+R – Most of our time in Koh Lipe was spent lounging outside of our beach bungalow, reading, working out – essentially living the “island dream.”


The only way on and off the island. Photo: Alison

View from the Cabana. Enough said. Photo - Sam.

Snorkeling and Finding Nemo.


After we found our favorite food spot, we ate a Tropical Cafe for almost every meal. Smoothie bowls and iced americanos all day every day. Photo: Alison

Highs, Lows, Best Bites, and Lessons Learned:


Sam


The gang our final night in Langkawi.

Highs: 


1. Bonding and getting to truly know my Mom’s best friend, Lori (now also my friend) and her husband, Charlie over home-cooked dinners & sunset


2. Alison on my back on our jetski as we island-hopped & laughing while water-soaked us


3. Our thatched bungalow and beautiful beach in Koh Lipe


Lows: Getting assaulted by leeches during our jungle hike. In total, we had over 20... UCK


Best bite:


Langkawi: Lori’s Greek styled chicken (best chicken I’ve ever had). Also her homemade pb&j's, hummus, breakfast of vanilla greek yogurt, homemade granola bars, and fresh mangos, blueberries, strawberries, & bananas


Koh Lipe: Everything from Tropical Cafe...coconut iced coffee, eggs Benedict with avocado on potatoes, açaí bowls, and a veggie skillet (a Kevin Beach staple)


Lesson Learned: Malaysia is dope


Alison


Thank you Chimney Corners YMCA for teaching me my horseback riding skills. Getting back in touch with my long lost "could have been" hobby. Photo: Sam

Highs:


1. Jetskiing all of Langkawi's islands with Sam and bumping over waves.


2. Dinner with Charlie and Lori our last night. We went to an Italian restaurant and shared stories and laughed the whole night.


3. Swimming in the water in Koh Lipe - gorgeous water, beautiful boats, so many palm trees - dreams do come true!


Best bite:


Langkawi: Lori’s homemade hummus on anything and everything - veggies, wraps, toasts.


Koh Lipe: The best veggie skillet from Tropical Cafe - zucchini, morning glory, potatoes, peppers, broccoli, tofu...oh my.


Lessons learned: "In the past, we humans have learned to control the world outside us, but we had very little control over the world inside us... If mosquitos buzzed in our ears, and disturbed out sleep, we knew how to kill the mosquitos; but if a thought buzzed in our mind and kept us awake at night, most of us did not know how to kill the thought" (Quote from the book I am reading now, (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) - Yuval Noah Harari

What's Next?


We are continuing our Southeast Asia tour to Cambodia (just left) and Vietnam (just arrived). After one more week, we will move on to Japan and than China. Got any recommendations? Let us know because we no plan and would love recommendations.


With Love,

Alison and Sam


Umgawa!


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